Is Netflix's 'Luke Cage' really the black superhero we've been waiting for?


Unlike Daredevil and Jessica Jones that came before, Luke Cage tells the story of a super strong, invulnerable black man who finds himself embroiled in a fight to save Harlem from being swallowed whole by a cadre of classic villains. Longtime fans of the comic book character rejoiced that for the first time, Marvel was telling an explicitly black story on screen with a predominantly black cast.

With all that in mind, Fusion’s Tahirah Hairston and Charles Pulliam-Moore took a trip to the show’s Harlem to ponder the question: What does Luke Cage have to say about being black in America?

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Charles: To be honest, most of my exposure to Luke came from conversations with my father who was a big fan of old-school ’70s Luke with the tiara and the cuffs and the loud yellow shirt. He was one of Marvel’s first black superheroes and for a certain generation he was THE iconic black hero. Back in the day, Luke was Marvel’s attempt at getting in on the popularity of Blaxploitation movies and in the process, it created this black superhero that set the bar for representation in the books. Luke Cage, the series, though, is trying to set a different precedent: being Marvel’s first explicitly black project.

Tahirah: I think it’s symbolically and literally attempting to connect with black people, history, culture, and the injustice we face today with the hoodie, the music, the conversations around racism and gentrification, the nods to literary figures, photographers, and musicians, and the fact that Luke Cage is bulletproof. But I think in most ways it fails and barely touches the surface. It tries to make something that was inspired and written in the ’70s work in 2016, but in the end, it doesn’t really seem to know what time period it’s in.

Charles: Talk to me.

Tahirah: Let’s start with the N-word.

Charles: Let’s. A LOT of the buzz around Luke Cage stems from the fact that for the first time in its history, Marvel decided that some of its characters would say “nigga.”

Tahirah: But…it’s also the first time Marvel has created a series starring a black superhero with a predominately black cast, so…the use of the word nigga isn’t something to celebrate?

Charles: I had complicated feelings about all the fanfare as well. On the one hand, there’s the valid argument that nigga is a word that comes up in conversations between black people, particularly in black spaces. We all know the intricate, nuanced ways that the word can be used, as a show telling a black story written by a black man, it’s only natural that people say it.

Tahirah: I think in the series they intentionally used the word nigga to separate a “good” black person from a “bad” black person, like Mike Colter mentioned in an interview with Vulture.

Charles: Yeah. Over the course of the season, I never exactly got the feeling that nigga was ever being used “casually” or without a specifically negative connotation behind it. I think Cottonmouth’s the first person to actually say it in an exchange with Mariah, and he’s using it in reference to black criminals who are beneath him?

Tahirah: That to me is a cheap way to explore black slang because the word nigga is more than a good or bad word.

Charles: Right, there’s never a moment where someone’s like, “that’s my nigga Luke Cage!” which is definitely something that a random civilian from Harlem might have called out when they saw him. It’s always “this person has said ‘nigga,’ that’s how you know that they’re up to no good.”

Tahirah: The series has Luke Cage say that he never wants to be called that word and has men in the barbershop put money in the swear jar for saying nigga, but never goes any deeper to explain why a black man might not want to be called that or why a black man feels fine using the word. I mean, if this is gonna be a purposely black series, why not have a discussion AT THE BARBERSHOP?

Charles: YES! I totally understand where Luke’s coming from when he says that he doesn’t like the word and doesn’t want people using it to refer to him, but the one moment where Luke begins to hint at why he doesn’t like it, he goes off on a tangent about black history and chastises a kid who’s about to shoot him.

The subtext of the scene is that Luke’s been so worn down by what’s happened—what these bad!niggas have done to him, that he’s no longer strong to up to stand up above them. He’s down on their level now and more than willing to say the word. Also, whenever Mike Colter said “nigga,” the delivery was always sort of…strained? Like awkward?

Tahirah: Yes! I laughed every time he said he didn’t like that word. I died because it was so corny and contrived. It felt like an after school special. The dialogue was so strange. Like, I understand his stance on being against the word, but his reasoning behind it is dense. I also noticed Luke Cage had such a problem with using the word “nigga,” but referring to men as bitches or women as bitches, not so much.

This series doesn’t actually discuss black culture and black history so much as it just lists names and events. I think it’s cool to be able to name people like Walter Mosley Duke Ellington, and Jamel Shabazz, but I’d wished they’d spent more time showing the beauty of black culture and what makes Harlem so beautiful.

Charles: I guarantee you Google searches for Crispus Attucks spiked over the weekend.

Tahirah: CHARLES.

Charles: The More You Know™.

Tahirah: I mean, I guess there was the Harlem Paradise performances.

Charles: I’m always here for a Faith Evans appearance.

Tahirah: No, I loved that. I love her. Also, okay, wait, can I say one thing once again about the time period and authenticity?

Charles: Please.

Tahirah: Why would a Harlem born and raised gangster have a Biggie painting in his office? I would have believed him more if it was Dipset or Max B. Or even Diddy.

Charles: “Nothing to see here, officers. Law-abiding club owner here.”

Tahirah: I was so confused that they kept showing the damn painting, and then had the nerve to dedicate a line in the show to it.

Charles: Showrunner Cheo Coker was a music journo in a former life!

Tahirah: Fair. But still…

Charles: In Biggie’s defense, the show is paying homage to the campiness of old-school Blaxploitation. Some of it’s bound to be a bit cheesy here and there.

Tahirah: That’s a good point. It wasn’t so much that it was cheesy as it was not believable. I like cheesy, actually—I am a person who loved The Get Down.

Charles: Girl, take a seat.

I wanna dig into your point about the show’s treatment of its female characters who, in my opinion, are THE MOST interesting people driving Luke Cage’s story.

Tahirah: I think the women on Luke Cage were its strongest characters. Just when I thought I was going to give up—Alfred Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Simone Missick came to save me. Alfre Woodard is great in mostly everything she does. The scene where she was pretending to like the children in Harlem, and then changes her facial expression and immediately gets hand sanitizer from her bodyguard is one of my favorites. Unlike, Luke Cage, I think the series actually explores her as a flawed, complex woman. I already loved Rosario Dawson from the time I saw her in Jessica Jones, and in Luke Cage we get to see her even more. I’m not sure if I’m sold on their romance (she can do better than a man with corny one-liners), but I am sold on her as a nurse. Please save me anytime Rosario.

Before this series, I don’t recall seeing Simone Missick on screen. But, I think she definitely stole the show in Luke Cage. She was in a world full of men who continually doubted her (of course), and she was smart and kept at it because she knew she was right. I also loved her Delta and AKA jokes. And, again, she deserves better than corny Luke Cage, too. Everyone does. Don’t date corny men, even if they fine. A PSA.

Charles: An important PSA. Friends don’t let friends hook up with corny men no matter how heroic and fine they may be.

I always felt as if Luke Cage really came alive in the scenes involving Misty, Claire, and Mariah. Misty’s connection to Pops, the police force, the gangbangers she knew—all of that felt real.

And on Mariah’s end, even though she was clearly interested in her own political motives, you got the impression that, on some level, she really does care about Harlem and wants it to flourish under her influence.

Tahirah: I think she definitely cared about Harlem, but I wish we got more time to hear her talk about it more, instead we got little snippets of her giving talks to the media or referencing buildings Duke Ellington used to live in.

I also love that Mariah killed Cottonmouth because that’s one of the plots I didn’t actually exactly see coming, and he really tried to tell her she was “asking for it,” which is understandably insulting to the point you might want to kill someone. But, the scene of the killing wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be. I just think it could have been a little more vicious. It felt safe.

Charles: Your point about Cottonmouth and Mariah bothered me, too. The way I understood it, Mariah was molested by a family member of theirs when she was a child and Cottonmouth was accusing her of asking for it. There are layers to the…offness of that. For starters, it makes another woman’s origin story tied to sexual assault and trauma. And implies that it’s that trauma that made her who she is when we meet her.

It’s the exact same issue that I had with Robin Wright’s character in House of Cards a few seasons back, where we learn that she was raped and that her rape was a catalyst for the character as we know her: smart, vicious, and competent. Why can’t Mariah just be a villain?

Tahirah: Agreed. Luke Cage used Mariah’s assault as an easy plot point for people to sympathize with. It used rape to humanize Mariah and justify her actions to some extent, when she could have just been an old school bougie black woman who wanted Harlem to stay black but also wanted to get the funding and power that she wanted politically, which I could have gotten down with.

Charles: As problematic as a story trope as it is, sexual assault is one of the larger narrative elements of Jessica Jones’ origin story.

Tahirah: But I think Jessica Jones explored that in a meaningful way. We really got to understand Jessica’s mindset, but her abusive relationship with Kilgrave also didn’t make her into the character she was. It’s something that happened to her and she was trying to move through it.

Charles: Right. It wasn’t a throwaway plot element. What did you think about Luke’s interactions with Misty and Claire? They both have their own shit going on throughout the series, but they’re both set up as potential love interests for Luke.

Tahirah: First, let me get this out of the way—can coffee never be used as a sex metaphor ever again? Thanks!

Charles: Luke’s line to Claire about liking certain coffee blends and liking Cuban coffee…was fucked up, right? Considering that the coffee-as-sex thing popped up twice before when he was speaking to black women?

Tahirah: Ah, I didn’t even catch that, but YES.

Charles: He SPECIFICALLY says he doesn’t fuck with coffee. But then with Claire, he’s like, “well, you know. I make exceptions for the swirl.”

Tahirah: I was like, um…also how many women are you tricking with this coffee line?

Charles: All of Harlem, apparently.

Charles: Let’s talk bullets, hoodies, and symbology. Black Lives Matter and Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, are inexorably tied to the killings of black people by police, but Luke Cage never really engages in any substantive commentary about Harlem’s relationship to law enforcement. The series makes a number of critiques of black-on-black crime, but never questions the forces at work that make it happen.

Tahirah: The Black Lives Matter and bulletproof black man conversations were in a way used to market a show that doesn’t really have much to do with them. I totally understand fighting crime and bad guys, but if you are claiming to make a show that is black and touting the importance of a bulletproof black man without once addressing the root of it all, that’s kind of ridiculous.

I think even the references to him being a black man on the show are kind of oversimplified when a police officer asked Misty why Luke Cage was running from the cops she says: you know why he’s running from the police…he’s a black man who’s been wrongly accused of multiple crimes he didn’t commit. From the superhero movies I’ve seen, all of them are running from the cops because usually the cops don’t understand that they’re doing good until later. In this context, Luke Cage fails to add more to the plot line to create a dialogue behind the idea of a bulletproof black man running from the cops.

I’m not expecting Luke Cage to be some groundbreaking show about race, but if it claims to address it, then at least try harder. It just felt like they were trying and failing to be “deep,” like they were dishing out important topics to discuss without actually diving in. It felt icky.

Charles: I think that the show is getting a lot of (justified) love for being Marvel’s first black project, but there’s a lot of projecting about what the show actually says about being black. Which is both good and bad, you know? Because that’s what happens when you can see yourself in a piece of art. You can attribute more meaning to it than is actually there and the art can spark conversations about about larger issues.

There’s the argument that Disney and Marvel wouldn’t want to have a show speaking that explicitly about race and police brutality, but like you said earlier, Jessica Jones got INTO a conversation about rape and survival while having a villain who was an embodiment of toxic masculinity and rape culture.

Tahirah: Then Luke Cage could and should have gotten into a conversation about race, police brutality, and white power. I think the symbolism of the hoodie here didn’t really matter in the plot. Everyone is trying to make the fact that he’s bulletproof mean something, but I don’t think it means that much on the show. He wasn’t out to fight corrupt cops. Or help fight injustice against black men. Luke Cage was very narrow minded, and made it his duty to fight black-on-black crime.  In the end, he was fighting back because some Harlem gangsters killed a man who was like a father to him. But what’s so interesting about the series…they ALL wanted Harlem to be great—Cottonmouth, Mariah, Luke. I think it was a fight on what was the right way to get it back, not a fight over what they wanted.

Charles: Be honest with me. Did you like Luke Cage? As a person? As commentary on blackness? As an action show?

Tahirah: As an action show, I didn’t hate it. But I did like Jessica Jones a lot more. (I did not watch Daredevil…I do not particularly care about white men.)

As a person, Luke Cage didn’t really appeal to me. Even a Dapper Dan suit couldn’t make me like him. I mean I obviously wanted him to win and he’s very very very attractive (heyyyy Mike Colter), but he didn’t particularly charm me like the villain Cottonmouth or his brother Diamondback—they acted their asses off.

As a commentary on blackness, I mean, we are discussing it, so I guess it accomplished something, right? But, as a meaningful commentary on blackness, I don’t think Luke Cage is the black hero we were waiting for. I’m still waiting for Black Panther.

I think the show was marketed as something that, in the end, it wasn’t. It was great that it was in Harlem, but aside from name dropping and a few performances, the series wasn’t a love letter to Harlem. Yes, Luke Cage is a bulletproof black man, which in theory means so much with the climate of America today, but…does the series actually examine that? No. Anytime it actually tried to create a plot around the police and Black Lives Matter it was routed in corruption or a way to trick the community into believing Mariah’s political agenda.

Language is such an important element in black culture, that I would have liked to see some more commentary. To say that this is a “hip hop western” and then despise the word nigga the whole time without any discussion is a little confusing no matter how many hip hop songs you play in the background, Biggie paintings you have, or Gang Starr episode names.

I loved the show’s depiction of the barbershop politics and the conversations about basketball, black literature, and hip hop, that felt authentic and smart. But just because you constantly reference black culture doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job of creating a dialogue or showing what it means to be black. Luke Cage’s persona is rooted in these conservative ideals, and that’s completely fine. But not when you’re equating that with goodness and badness. Is it even fair to call him the black superhero of our time if he doesn’t understand or can’t connect with young black people today? I don’t think so.

Charles: Luke Cage didn’t have to be some sort of damning indictment of white people, but it definitely felt like the show ultimately was saying that all Harlem (and by extension, all of Marvel’s black neighborhoods) needed to get their shit together and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Luke’s supposed to be a community hero. The kind of guy that you see on the street and wave to because you know he’s looking out for you and yours. I get that feeling from him, but I dunno that I really like Luke as a person.

Someone refers to Luke Cage as the Captain America of Harlem—and I think that’s perfect. He’s a symbol from another (more respectable) time who cares about black people, but doesn’t care for certain modes of black communication that he regards as problematic. Those are opinions Luke’s entitled to, but it made it difficult for me to connect to him.

That said, I eagerly await the next installment of the series if it means we’ll be spending more time with Misty Knight and a now fully evil Black Mariah. Give me a show just about them.

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